New educational technologies, increased student indebtedness, rising institutional costs, shifting demographics, and often stagnant support from church bodies that are themselves stretched thin — all these and other factors are having monumental effects on theological education. In turn, schools are continuing to change the way they provide education and formation to future church leaders. 

But how exactly are theological schools changing, and in what ways are they staying the same? To get some answers, in 2015 the Association of Theological Schools (ATS) launched an initiative called “Educational Models and Practices in Theological Schools.” 

In June, at the association’s 2018 Biennial Meeting in Denver, ATS staff took time to summarize the project, including its goals, methods, and findings. Stephen Graham, senior director of programs and services at ATS, said in his Biennial presentation that notwithstanding the variety of innovations that are being tried at theological schools in the United States and Canada, there remains at ATS schools a staunch commitment to educational quality as measured by achievement of learning outcomes. “No one wants to short-change students on preparation for their careers in ministry and service,” said Graham, quoting a report from one of the 18 peer groups that met during the course of the initiative. Ultimately these peer groups included more than 260 participants from 110 theological schools. 

Nuts and bolts

The Educational Models and Practices project started with two consecutive surveys. The first, sent to academic deans, had a response rate of 83 percent. The second was sent to 200 schools and collected responses from 400 different academic program directors. The responses from the two surveys led to the creation of the 18 peer groups, which were formed to look closely at particular educational models and practices. 

Some of the peer groups examined areas where change is taking place — for example, at schools that are offering online classes or competency-based education. Other groups looked at the areas where there is more continuity in educational delivery — for example, in schools that form Catholic priests or in other seminaries and divinity schools that serve traditional students with daytime classes taught by full-time professors.

The peer groups mapped out the state of theological education and explored the ramifications of recent changes, whether great or small, in their own cohorts. There was also some cohort mixing, in which schools with very different kinds of educational delivery came together to see what they might learn from one another. Each peer group wrote an extensive report, and all the reports are available online (see 


In his executive summary, Stephen Graham identified 12 areas that were consistently deemed important by the peer groups: access, cost to student, mission, educational quality, formation, faculty development, cultural competence, definitions and purposes of degree programs, collaborations, institutional resources, technologies, and educational philosophy and pedagogy.

Graham presented some of the most important findings from the initiative: 

1.  Theological schools have been working extremely hard to improve access to theological education. Many new programs and delivery systems were specifically designed to improve access for underserved groups. These include: 

  • Online and hybrid classes, which are offered partly online and partly in person.

  • Extension sites and auxiliary campuses.

  • Global partnerships, sometimes with overseas universities.

  • Contextual education, in which students “learn by doing” in ministry settings.

  • Scheduling options, such as block scheduling, evening classes, and intensives.

  • Program flexibility based on assessment of prior learning.

  • Programs offered in correctional facilities.

2.  Because many of these programs are bringing new groups into theological education, some schools have placed a significant emphasis on improving cultural competence among students, faculty, administration, and board members. 

3.  Some schools have an ongoing concern about undergraduate debt as a barrier to admission, and many are concerned about educational debt overall as a barrier to ministry for seminary graduates. Thus, Graham said, “schools are increasingly attentive to the financial burdens that theological education places on students, but at the same time, the schools themselves face daunting institutional financial challenges.” Schools rarely pass along the full cost of education to students, Graham added. 

4.  Theological schools already participate in a large variety of collaborations — with other theological schools, with colleges and universities, with denominations and judicatories, with institutes and nonprofit organizations, and with global mission partners, among others. 

5.   All the changes that are currently taking place in theological education have profound implications not only for students, but also for faculty members. The studies clearly show that faculty members are engaging in increasing amounts of administrative work and are immersed in new pedagogies and unfamiliar roles in student formation, some of which they feel unprepared for. Graham reported that as faculty work changes, many professors experience a deep sense of loss.

In the coming years, ATS member schools will be working together to revise the Standards of Accreditation, so the question of how to recognize these diverse issues, and how to assess new models of teaching and learning, is extremely important. 

“Based on what has been learned through the surveys and study groups, the accrediting standards and procedures need to be redeveloped to maintain both rigor and flexibility,” Graham said at the ATS Biennial, “all the while creating space for educational models not imagined or implemented.” He said that the revised Standards of Accreditation ought to reflect the variety of roles for which theological schools are preparing their graduates.

Beyond influencing the revision of the standards, the findings of this project are already supporting the work of leaders in theological education. As Graham said, stakeholders at individual schools benefit from seeing how the changes they are adopting in their own contexts fit into the larger picture. A school that’s considering expanding its online offerings, for example, will want to read the report of schools that are already deeply engaged in online education in order to see what lessons can be drawn. 

Ending his presentation, Graham quoted Abraham Lincoln and aptly summed up the weight of institutional decisions: “The struggle for today, is not altogether for today — it is for a vast future also.” 

Further resources

More on the Educational Models and Practices project   

Reflections on key themes of the peer group reports  

Full text of the peer group reports 

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